Manipulative Behavior or Acts of Desperation?

Elliott L. Conklin, Psy.D.
June 3, 2024

As a psychologist, I’ve often heard the term “manipulative” used to describe certain behaviors, particularly in individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder or children with Attachment Disorders. However, after years of working with these populations, I’ve come to realize that labeling someone as manipulative is not only inaccurate but also counterproductive.

When we think of manipulation, we typically imagine a person in control, cleverly influencing others to get what they want. But if we take a closer look at the behaviors we often deem manipulative, we’ll find that they are actually acts of desperation.

Consider a mother who tells her adult daughter, who is leaving town for a week, “I’ll probably die off alone somewhere with only the cat to mourn me.” Or a distressed person who repeatedly threatens self-harm, only to rebound at the first sign of attention. These behaviors are not calculated attempts to control others, but rather knee-jerk reactions born from the belief that there is no other way to get their needs met.

True manipulation is a hallmark of sociopathy. It involves violating another’s dignity and self-control, bringing shame upon the victim for participating in their own defeat. Historical figures like Adolf Hitler or Jim Jones, and literary characters like Hannibal Lecter and Nurse Rached, exemplify this type of malevolent manipulation.

When we label someone as manipulative, we create a barrier to empathy that hinders the healing process. For friends and family, it can lead to the designation of the individual as guilty and deviant, forever altering the relationship dynamic.

Instead of using the “M word,” we should strive to understand the message behind these desperate behaviors: “Help me. I am in distress and don’t know how to feel better. I’m afraid that no one cares.” By recognizing the struggle and pain behind these actions, we can respond with compassion and support, rather than judgment and rejection.

Good therapists know the difference between manipulation and knee-jerk reactions, and they can help identify the need when someone is acting out of desperation.

If you are frequently in the presence of someone who communicates this way, it can be helpful to get support and learn about how to respond. Sometimes the recipe is better boundaries, other times it is learning to ignore the behavior and speak to the feelings. Give us a call if you want to talk about your experiences.